Earlier this week, Vermont State University President Parwinder Grewal appeared before a legislative committee for the first time since he stunned many by announcing the elimination of physical libraries on the system’s five campuses. The backlash was swift and strong, including a piece on this very website.
So it’s not too surprising that when he testified before the Senate Education Committee on Valentine’s Day, he seemed to have thoroughly revised his plan. (His testimony can be viewed here.)
We’re not closing any libraries, perish the thought. We aren’t getting rid of all our books, what nonsense. In fact, the libraries will still be called “libraries” or maybe “libraries and learning centers,” but they’ll be better in every way. The gates to the universe of digital information will be flung open. There will be more computers, printers, and other technical resources. There will be more spaces for individual and group study. Librarians will be available in all five libraries for student and faculty consultation.
Libraries aren’t going away, far from it. They’ll be transformed to better fit the learning needs of students and the teaching needs of faculty.
Wow. Either he radically rewrote his plan, or he did a piss-poor job of explaining it initially.
Spoiler alert: It’s the former.
We know this because VSU posted an explainer about the changes on its website. The headline refers, in all caps, to a NEW ALL-DIGITAL LIBRARY, EFFECTIVE JULY 1, 2023.
The only exception was for “special library collections that rely on physical resources.” There would be discussions with faculty to identify those resources and then “explore mechanisms for their maintenance whether with the program or in other venues.”
So they weren’t committed to keeping any physical materials at all. Their sole promise was to find a home, somewhere, for those “special library collections.”
On Tuesday, Grewal said “high-value materials” would remain in the libraries, including frequently-used books and other Gutenberg-era resources. One reason for the switch is potential legal entanglements. Some students with disabilities need printed materials because technology is a barrier to them. If they are not accommodated, lawsuits loom.
He was careful not to promise too much. The bulk of the collections will still go away. Only items deemed “essential” by faculty will remain.
So there will be books, but I imagine as few of them as possible. Instead, a colorful learning butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis of the print-heavy library. They will work with students to “transform” library spaces into more flexible learning spaces. There will be more technology. The goal is to establish a learning-oriented “community commons” where a thousand educational flowers will bloom.
Grewal did address cost concerns. The new libraries will have librarians (well, one librarian each), but other staff who maintain print collections will go away. Seven full-time and three part-time positions will be trimmed. (Those employees have already been told they’re being cut; they were encouraged to apply for other open positions in the VSU system.)
Grewal said the VSU system faces a “25 million structural deficit, and maintaining physical collections accounts for 30% of the library budget. So there are savings to be had — but not a hell of a lot compared to the existential challenge faced by the system.
There will be significant up-front costs for new tech, furnishings, and “innovative spaces.” VSU officials will consult with experts in library redesign, and those people don’t come cheap.
So, in the short term there will be new expenses. Savings will accrue in the longer term — if, that is, the abandonment of traditional libraries doesn’t trigger a backlash or convince students to go elsewhere. Of course, Grewal is confident, rightly or wrongly, that the new “commons” will be an attraction, not a detriment.
We shall see. We’ll also see how much of this work can be completed before the July 1 drop-dead date. This process will take time if it’s to be done properly. These are new concepts, and the description of the new libraries slash learning centers is awfully vague and, well, subject to change depending on input from students and faculty. It’s hard to imagine they can even conduct an intelligent and drastic reduction in library collections by July 1.
VSU has a little more than four months to do all this work and get it right. Grewal is off to a bad start by unleashing a radical proposal with insufficient forethought, and then rewriting it after a blast of criticism. He will have to regain the trust of students, faculty, staff and potential allies who balked at his initial plan.
Clock’s ticking, Dr. Grewal.
I bet Governor DeSantis wishes he’d come up with this idea. Instead of banning and burning, I mean banning, or two books at a time, just get rid of all them at once.
Let’s not give Desatan’s any ideas. He is the politician that most worries me in the GOP camp. He becomes president, the nearest Long Trail access is 16 miles east but I would get to Canada in the middle of winter and be so screwed.
This political nightmare has been brought to you by today’s republican movement….
I still cannot figure out what this Grewal clown is up to. He and his cohorts must have known that reactions against them would be swift and hard. Something is going on underneath the veil of this stupidity.
As for today’s “political nightmare” being “brought to you by today’s republican movement”… completely agreed, but we also should not forget the democrats who cooperated with it and there are/were plenty of them. If DeSantas becomes president, I’ll be on that long trail as well.
Grewal and the rest have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to digital saving money. The schools OWN the books on the shelves. Digital materials are leased. The VLA released a statement to that effect. The librarians’ contracts make sure they get paid the same amount if they are sent to other positions. Maintaining and constantly updating new tech to deliver for all the students is so much more expensive than dusting shelves.
I only hope they are stupid and not evil. Evil would imply that this is deliberate and they want the schools to fail. We’re educators; stupid we can fix. Evil… no fixing evil.
The reason given, over and over again, is that this is to save money. They do not explain how it will save money. The librarians have to be offered positions elsewhere in the college system at their current rate of pay. The technology has to be upgraded. Many more computers will have to be purchased and maintained. Constant renewal of multiple leases to countless publishers, into perpetuity at ever increasing prices for ever narrowing resources, will have to be monitored to ensure we retain the titles we need. The Vermont Library Association has confirmed that electronic libraries are more costly to establish and retain than a physical collection. And, especially here in Vermont, it will be more expensive to heat the big empty spaces. No one has explained how removing a single book will save any money at all.
And worse? None of the local libraries are capable of taking on even fractions of the 300,000+ collection that the schools already own outright (as noted in the VLA statement). With no place for them to go, they will get recycled. If the administration changes their mind – the multi-million dollar collection will have to be re-purchased.
“The reason given, over and over again, is that this is to save money.”
True, I’ve read that on the saving money part. Whenever a business person, a CEO or a politico says that the reason they are gutting their companies, laying off thousands of workers, cutting social services, or whatever is to “save money” I smell that proverbial rat. In other words, what’s in-it-for-them? Where does the money that they are supposedly saving lead to?
If, for example, Grewal sells out Northern Vermont U will he get a big position at UVM or some million-dollar salary at some company, which is getting the contracts to do all this electronic stuff?
That’s why this whole library thing doesn’t smell right to me.